Davos Notebook

China and the future of the Internet

CHINA- Michael Fertik is the founder and CEO of Reputation.com, an online privacy and reputation management company. He is a member of the World Economic Forum Agenda Council on Internet Security and recipient of the WEF Technology Pioneer 2011 Award. The opinions expressed are his own. -

China’s Internet is, in fact, the world’s largest intranet. This is not news to anyone who follows technology in the Middle Kingdom. The Chinese government doesn’t make any real attempt to hide its complete control over what happens behind the Great Firewall. The regime is open about its intent to ensure what it calls “harmony,” which more or less means that it will squelch civil debate that moves beyond a certain pitch or further than a few degrees off the median line. As China’s power grows online and offline, these patterns, taken together with the Chinese government’s technical sophistication, will be of fundamental importance to the overlap between digital freedom and privacy.

The Chinese play hard. They mean to keep their intranet secure and the integrity of their “harmonious” public web discourse intact. They do not hesitate to use their considerable technical prowess to spy on machines that are operated on their network.  As a friend of mine in U.S. intelligence circles says without hesitation, “If you go to China, there is a 100 percent chance that your equipment will be compromised.” Earlier this week here at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, I met a successful civil activist who routinely visits China for her work, and she casually reported a recent office visit from Chinese state security services who evinced specific and sweeping knowledge of her emails, calendar, and other information she keeps exclusively on her computer.

Astonishingly, despite its stated objectives of harmony and control, the Chinese have allowed or even encouraged an exploding Internet economy in their country. Of course, the user-generated web — comprised of online publishing tools, self-propelled video sites, and social media tools — is a potential powder keg for a government that cherishes conformity in its national conversation. But the Chinese government has adapted skillfully to the risks. They still sometimes resort to simple shutdown of antagonistic URLs. But their methods have become much more nuanced and powerful in recent years. They have effectively co-opted the power of user-generated content and distribution publication for their own interests.

Leaders of Chinese online media and commerce companies, including ones that have already gone public or filed for IPO in the U.S., have been fairly open about their relationships with their government. They describe the regime’s remarkably frank point of view: we want you to succeed, but not at the expense of harmony. In practice, that means that, if you play ball with Beijing’s running rules — if, for example, you remove user-generated content that criticizes the government’s response to an earthquake — you can survive and even become a billionaire. If not, you’d better move to the U.S. and try your business model again.

Tablets take over the world, one Davos at a time

This time last year, the online team here in Davos broke off from its coverage of the WEF for an hour or so to follow another Reuters live event – the unveiling of Apple’s iPad.

Back then, there were many gaps in our knowledge of what the iPad could do. We didn’t even know what it would be called.

What a difference a year makes. Now the device, and other tablet computers, is on show everywhere, especially among the gathering of the global elite in Davos. Reuters technology correspondent Kenneth Li wrote yesterday in this article that: “Those discussing the “Shared Norms for the New Reality” in Davos this week need only look around them to see one such ‘reality’: low-cost smart devices are sweeping away clunky old computers throughout the political and business world.”

Cybersecurity goes prime time at Davos

DAVOS/- Michael Fertik is the founder and CEO of Reputation.com, an online privacy and reputation management company. He is a member of the World Economic Forum Agenda Council on Internet Security and recipient of the WEF Technology Pioneer 2011 Award. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The World Economic Forum (WEF) has named cybersecurity one of the top five risks in the world. In its Global Risks 2011 report, the WEF’s Risk Response Network nominated cybersecurity alongside planetary risks posed by demography, resource scarcity, trepidation about globalization, and, of course, WMDs. This is heady stuff. Cybersecurity has officially gone prime time. This week in Davos, I’ll be moderating and contributing to panel sessions on this topic.

The timing could not be more ripe. Right now we are witnessing the convergence of multiple seismic risks to data integrity. Social networks capture and mine ever larger amounts of data about humans and companies, opting users into increasingly invasive data collection with little or no notice. Apps operating on social networks and smartphones continually pull data streams about friends, families, personal connections, contacts, geo-location, behavior, preferences, tastes, and health habits — even when these data streams are unrelated to the stated purpose of the applications.